Usually what I write about in this space is whatever comes to mind. Sometimes that writing is lighthearted and rambling. Other times, thewriting is more serious (and rambling). The horrible events of thispast Tuesday however, have given me pause. Like most people, theimages of the World Trade Center falling to the earth are beyondcomprehension. The video of a commercial airliner flying into askyscraper are beyond imagination. While I watched the destruction ofthe towers in real-time, it wasn’t until the next day that the enormity hitme full force. Even though I spent nearly all day on Tuesday listeningto the radio and watching television, reading about the tragedy in the paperon Wednesday morning had me crying in my cereal. That someone could beso utterly filled with hate is beyond me. While I may not like certainpeople, places or things, I’ve never known an emotion so strong that I’dkill thousands to try and feed my own demons. How do we respond to the actions of such people? It is clear that there is no negotiation with terrorists. RonaldReagan’s policy was that the USA would not negotiate with terrorists. My own personal understanding was that this policy was founded in the beliefthat there was no way to meet terrorists half way. Terrorists mightkidnap 100 people and demand the release of 200 colleagues from ajail in a country of their choice. Negotiating the release of 50people for 100 prisoners did neither party any good. Therefore, it wasall or nothing. We got all 100 people for nothing or we diedtrying. Now, however, I understand that perhaps the real wisdom ofthis doctrine lies elsewhere. We do not negotiate with terroristsbecause the terrorists themselves do not understand the concept ofnegotiation. In the terrorist world view there are no partialvictories. The enemy is completely defeated or the terrorist diestrying. Unlike nation states which often will accept negotiatedsettlements of disputes (often because of geopolitical reasons beyond thescope of the original dispute), terrorists have no such long view towardsthe future. Terrorists seem to be locked into a long view of the pastand the now.
If we cannot negotiate with terrorists, then it seems we must conquerthem utterly. Unfortunately, this is not as easy as going to war witha nation state. Terrorism has no capitals, no national boundaries, nocivic monuments, no president, no congress, and no military. How thendo we defeat terrorism? The same way we defeat murder, theft, and othercrimes at home: through deterrence. Crime in America isfundamentally controlled in three basic fashions:1. We make it asdifficult as possible to commit the crime in question.
- We make thepenalty for overcoming obstacles to crime and carrying out the crime sostiff that criminals hopefully think twice before committing a crime. If a crime is committed anyway, we punish the criminal.
- We try to changethe circumstances under which crimes are most often committed. Americans deter crime at a personal, civic,state, and federal level every day. You lock your car because itdeters the casual thief from reaching in to take your CDs. You mighthave an alarm system at your house to deter the more committed thief fromrelieving you of your possessions. The federal government makes ithard to buy a handgun on little notice to try and deter heat of the momentcrimes. Stores use surveillance cameras to deter theft from both theiremployees and the general public. None of these measures areimpossible to circumvent. If you bought a hand gun two months ago,there’s nothing stopping you from using it in the heat of the momenttoday. If you really want the CDs in my car, you just smash theglass and take them. If a thief really wants to rob your house he doesit quickly, before the security company and local police can respond. The underlying theory behind all these actions is that if we make crime moredifficult to carry out, only truly dedicated criminals will commitcrime. By reducing crimes of opportunity, we reduce the overall crimelevels.
We need to use the same idea with terrorism. By reducing theopportunity to commit terrorist acts, we can reduce the threat of terrorism. Sky marshals onthe hijacked airliners might have prevented this tragedy entirely (as anadded benefit, having armed officers on board planes would cut down on airrage, too). Certainly the idea of having a weapon discharged in anarrow tube packed with people at twenty-seven thousand feet isn’t a greatidea at first blush. However, it certainly seems better than thealternative we were presented with on Tuesday. Tougher security checksat airports are a good idea. Make it harder to get a weapon on a planeand the opportunity to wreak havoc on the plane disappears.
Americans deter crime many times by changing the lives of those who mightotherwise turn to crime. Late night basketball games in the innercities help to reduce crime by getting people off the streets and into a gymand then giving them something to do that they like. Many people turnto crime because they aren’t employed and can’t otherwise meet theirobligations. Others turn to crime because they feel respected fortheir criminal activity when they would otherwise be ignored. Givingthese people a healthy outlet for their urges and social contact beyond thatof the street seems to reduce crime, too.
We need to fight terrorism the same way. American foreign policyover the last couple of decades has been reasonably isolationist andarrogant in many ways. Look at American foreign policy following WorldWar II. We rebuilt Japan and Germany. Germany is now one of ourstaunchest allies. Japan is one of our biggest trading partners. Is it likely that any of our recent past governments would have approved thekind of expenditures needed to rebuild those countries today? Ofcourse not. American intervention in places like Beirut, Somalia, andVietnam were disasters. What did we accomplice and was it worth makingenemies for those same gains? This isn’t to say that we need toembrace Libya, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan as our bosom buddies. Farfrom it. Rather, we need to lead the world in a direction that theworld wants to go, rather than a direction that we unilaterally decide thatit should go. If we agreed to Kyoto, then stick to ouragreements. How can we expect Palestinians to look at Americafavorably when we unconditionally support Israel? Israel is just asfallible as any other country in the world. If Israel makes mistakes,if Israel breaks agreements, we ought to call them on it. By the sametoken, that means monitoring the Palestinians likewise.
It is the second point above that is the most difficult one for me toaddress right now. Commit a crime in America and if you are caught andjudged guilty, you will be punished. If you committed amisdemeanor you may have to pay a fine or serve a small amount ofprison time. Commit a felony and you are looking at a life changingexperience. You loose your ability to vote. You can no longereven handle a gun. You are barred from working in certainindustries. All this is on top of near certain prison time. Prison time and fines arehow American society punishes the vast majority of its criminals. For a certain stratum of the criminal population, American society hasreserved the ultimate sanction: the death penalty.
How then should those who were involved in the World Trade Center bombingbe punished? Those who were involved and are caught in the UnitedStates might actually be the lucky ones. They are the ones who will bearrested and processed by the American judicial system. Depending onthe crimes they have committed, many may not be eligible for the deathsentence and may only have to serve out their lives in isolationcells with one hour of exercise, alone, every day at a high security prisonin Colorado. Those terrorists who are to be found abroad face a muchgreater chance of death for those terrorists will be hunted by the men andwomen on the US Armed Forces. Those soldiers and sailors will mostlikely meet out the death sentence without involving judge and jury. Is this just? Yes.
Another question is how many must die to satisfy America’s thirst forrevenge? One side of me says that terrorists must be made to feel ourpain in every fiber of their being. We must kill the terrorists’ kids,parents, dogs, cats, grandchildren, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nephews,nieces, and the like. Then we kill the terrorists’ friends and theirfriends’ families. Then, we kill the people who sell the terroristscoffee, the people who sell them food, the people who make their clothes,the people who take away their garbage, and the families of all thosepeople. And then, and only then, do we kill the terroriststhemselves. One recent television talking head has noted that theRussians do not suffer from terrorism, generally and historically. Thereason is that the Russians do just what I detailed above. The KGB andother organs of the state had no conscience and no scruples. Theymerely wanted to demonstrate to others that it was better to turn in yourfamily members for even thinking about acting out against the state than tolet them go forward with their plans.
While the efficacy of such a plan is nearly certain, such actions aregenerally atodds with the American view of justice. Parents are not punished for theirchildren’s actions. The guy who sells who sells you coffee in themorning is not liable for your software piracy in the afternoon. However, such actions are not without precedent in American history. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while enemies at the time, werecertainly not immediate threats. However, we used the atomic bomb onthem to force the Japanese to a surrender they might not have otherwisehave accepted.
While one side of me wallows in the thought of so much vengeful butchery,the other side holds firm to the belief that such killing would solvenothing and that we must be just as fair as we are firm. We need tofocus on killing terrorists, not the people who live in the countries where the terrorists hide. AsAmericans it is reasonably trivial to reduce a country to abjectpoverty. Look at North Korea, Cuba, and Iraq. All are understrict no-trade bans and all are suffering for it. Iraq is swimming inoil and yet university professors are forced to sell their textbooks alittle at a time every month to get the money to eat. The citizens ofNorth Korea are eating grass and boiling bark to try and avoidstarvation. Cuba has no industry to speak of and seems to survive onlydue to the will of Castro. Afghanistan is already a land hovering onthe brink of the Bronze Age with a repressed and poor populace. It isunclear to me what we get by destroying such people with our military when oureconomic policies have already brought them such ruin and can keep them outof the Iron Age nearly indefinitely.
Where do I stand on this issue then? I don’t know. My desirefor revenge burns like a white hot flame without heed of reason. Let’sturn Afghanistan into a giant, smoking, radioactive crater as a permanentreminder not to mess with America. Admiral Yamamoto, who led theJapanese attack on Pearl Harbor, said, “We have awakened a sleepinggiant and have instilled in him a terrible resolve.” Let the sleepinggiant awaken once again and instruct another small nation in the folly ofattacking America and its people.
At the same time, it seems wrong topunish so many people for the crimes of a few. If terrorists and theirfriendly governments are the problem, then let’s end only those people’slives, if possible, and limit the damage to the relatively innocent.
One San Francisco resident recently opined that we ought to turnAfghanistan into “a parking lot.” While I’m sure that thisresident’s implication was that we ought to level the country in question, Ihad a slightly more lighthearted vision in my head. I envisionedleveling the country, then paving it, painting lines, and putting up lightposts. I then pictured advertisements for Pakistan and Iran,”Come to Pakistan. We have plenty of parking!”Today I started my training to become an adult literacy tutor through theAlameda Adult Literacy Program. The program teaches adults how who arefunctionally illiterate how to read and write. It is beyond myunderstanding how a person could function in society without being able toread and write. Imagine not being able to read a menu, or the phonebook, a web site, a street sign, a newspaper, or the names of items in thegrocery store! For most people reading is so fundamental to theirlives it is as natural and effortless as breathing and eating. Personally, I cannot remember a time when I was not able to read. Myearliest reading-related memory is that of my mother bringing me to the library when I not yet five. Ifmemory serves, I was already reading at that point in my life. Everyday I spend hours and hours reading books, magazines, newspapers,computer screens, and the like. I quite simply could not function if Icould not read. I’m going to try and help someone else tobreak free of the limitations that illiteracy places on that person’slife. If I can do so without violating that person’s privacy, I’llpost updates here.